Saturday, May 06, 2006

Is Freakonomics Hard Up for Topics?

UPDATE: See this related post at Chronicle of the Conspiracy.

UPDATE 2: And see this takedown, at The Buck Stops Here, of the Freakonomics post discussed below.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics (the blog) and Freakonomics (the book) also have a column in The New York Times Magazine. (What's next, a glow-in-the-dark compass and decoder?) Their latest column ("A Star Is Made") is about

Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University, . . . . the ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement, a loose coalition of scholars trying to answer an important and seemingly primordial question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

Ericsson's answer, according to Levitt and Dubner, is found in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which

makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.


when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

How did Ericsson (and his co-authors) discover these "truths"? By

studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts.

It seems that Ericsson and company have studied only experts, yet they want to generalize their findings to include non-experts. Their study evidently suffers from selection bias. For example, boys with good athletic skills are more likely to enjoy athletics than boys who are weak, have poor eyesight, are obese, etc. Boys who enjoy athletics are thus far more likely to become good athletes than boys who do not participate in athletics. But the boys who enjoy athletics will, on the whole, have superior athletic skills to begin with. To continue the metaphor, Ericsson and company seem to have studied only the boys who began with superior athletic skills.

More generally, experts presumably have chosen to do what they "love." And why do they (or did they) love what they do? Because they were good at doing it -- relative to doing other things -- in the first place. Yes, experts become experts because they study and practice that at which they eventually excel. But they choose to study and practice that which they like to do, and they like to do those things for which they had some talent to begin with.

Ericsson and company have proved nothing beyond what most of us know from experience and casual observation. Experts are born with certain talents, and then they become experts because they cultivate those talents. Experts are born and made. But they must be born with a degree of talent that allows them to make themselves into experts.

I am surprised that Levitt and Dubner have chosen to highlight Ericsson's work. Are they desperate for new material? Or are they attacking the idea of genetic inheritance? Or both?